Mary Tan reports.
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Date Posted: 02/22/05 11:35:38am
Beauty Queen Heads To Prison
Dee Henderson, a mom, a wife and a former beauty queen will begin serving her sentence for Social Security fraud at a prison in Illinois. She's started an online petition drive in hopes of serving her time closer to home
Feb 21, 2005 10:00 pm US/Central
(WCCO) A beauty pageant winner, a mother and future prison inmate. All describe former Mrs. Minnesota International Dee Henderson.
Monday, she boarded a plane for Illinois, where she will begin serving a 46-month sentence for Social Security fraud.
Dee Henderson and her husband wanted to tell their side of the story.
“Why did you decide to apply for Social Security Benefits?” asked WCCO-TV’s Mary Tan.
“Actually, it wasn’t my choice,” Henderson replied. “I wish I never had.”
Henderson said she has experienced chronic pain since a 1995 car accident. At first, she got $3,100 a month through her own disability policy.
“I received a phone call from my case worker, who told me part of my obligation under that policy is that I was required to file for Social Security disability, and not only apply, I had to take it all the way through the appeals process,” Henderson said.
Henderson applied for Social Security twice.
“She would call me and check to see, ‘Have you filled out the application, where’s it at, what’s the status?’” Henderson said.
Twice, Henderson was turned down by Social Security. Then, an administrative law judge decided Henderson was entitled to Social Security. She initially received $2,198 each month, which was bumped up to $2,251 in December 1999.
“He said, she’s not disabled, but she’s unable to keep a fulltime job because of her chronic illness,” said Ken Henderson, Dee Henderson’s husband.
“It would be likely I would miss one day of work a week, because of the unpredictability, because of the pain and therefore, I was unemployable,” Dee Henderson said.
“Can you describe the pain for us? Tan asked Dee Henderson.
“If you’ve never had a migraine headache, you have no idea what it’s like being inside my head … the women that have migraines can understand what I’m saying, but the other ailments, it’s hard to describe that to people,” Dee Henderson said.
Despite those ailments, muscle ache, fatigue, chronic neck and back pain, Dee Henderson stayed involved in pageants. In 1999, she was crowned Mrs. Minnesota International.
That same year, Dee Henderson went on vacation with her family. An insurance investigator also went, and secretly shot video of Dee Henderson running down stairs, carrying bulky luggage and diving in the ocean.
“What I was actually doing was more like snorkeling … I never put tanks on my back, for that exact reason, that I can’t carry the weight on my back,” Dee Henderson said.
The insurance company’s video later became a part of a federal case against Dee Henderson.
“We have to eliminate fraud and abuse,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger. “This was a case of fraud and abuse.”
Other evidence included an e-mail where Dee Henderson compared herself to the Energizer Bunny, saying, “I will keep going and going and going and going.”
Prosecutors portrayed Dee Henderson as a busy beauty queen on the go, making 225 public appearances in 1999 alone. After her reign as Mrs. Minnesota International ended, she directed three beauty pageants and ran her own business.
In contrast, Dee Henderson’s reports to Social Security described difficulty with personal grooming, sitting, standing, walking, kneeling, squatting, climbing, bending, lifting, reaching and using her hands.
“She presented a picture of herself that was deceptive and untrue … she went into a hearing, put her hand up, swore to tell the truth and lied,” Heffelfinger said.
Last August, a federal court found Dee Henderson guilty of nine felonies. Her sentence is nearly four years in prison, which was increased because the judge said she had lied repeatedly, and because the payments, unstopped, would have topped $700,000.
“They thought I should be in a wheelchair, with a cane, in bed everyday,” Dee Henderson said.
Dee Henderson calls her health problems a hidden disability.
“When the jury was looking at Dee, she looks fine,” Ken Henderson said. “In fact, I think she looks better than fine and I think it’s hard for people to look inside and see your pain when the outside looks so good.”
Dee Henderson said prosecutors offered her a deal before the trial: plead guilty to one criminal count and face a lighter sentence. Dee Henderson turned down the offer.
“We were told by our advisors, attorneys, Social Security experts, physical therapists, physicians, ‘She’s disabled,’ and not to be concerned. We followed that advice,” Ken Henderson said.
“Yeah, I could have gone the easy way out, but I can’t live with admitting something I didn’t do,” Dee Henderson said.
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